The Birth of Al-Andalus

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The Birth of Al-Andalus



By Mª Luisa Freire Lodeiro

The Arabs in their policy of expansionism, arrived in Tunisia converting many Berbers to Islam, and entered in Morocco in 700 eliminating all resistance and establishing their sovereignty.

They came to the peninsula due to the fact of the wealth reports given by the exile Jewish, but mainly because the kingdom of Visigothic was involved in a civil war between two sides, those who supported Rodrigo against the supporters of Vitiza’s son, who asked help to Muslims. This was the reason why Muza, governor of Morocco, sent an army into the hands of Tariq to cross the strait. After the battle in the river Guadalete, and after beating Rodrigo, they would begin its rapid expansion. Only 40 years later, the Muslims had dominated the peninsula.


Gate in Alhambra, Granada

The reasons of their quick expansionism were the superior military power of the Muslims against the Visigoths. They found resistance only in the areas where Rodrigo was supported. The rest of the Visigoth nobles decided to capitulate or agree their submission, which meant that they had to pay high taxes, to maintain their property and authority. On the other hand, there were also Visigoths that fled to the north, leaving their lands. When the Muslims arrived, they found land for enjoyment, as a result many of them changed their style life, from military class to a landlord class.
The existence of the old Roman roads also allowed its rapid expansion and control of communications. Muslims were in a hurry to get to Toledo, which was the Visigothic capital, where they hoped to find the treasures of the Gothic kings.

These new conquerors made an attempt to follow their path through the North trying to invade France, but they found a great resistance with Charlemagne, who defeated them on several occasions, and even took some of the territory of the peninsula from them, creating the Hispanic Mark. The weather factor was also important as these Muslims were used to a hot, dry weather, and they found a harsh, long winter, so they had to put up with the peninsula.

Contact with the population

Contact with the population was done without complications. In fact a feature of the al-Andalus society would be its ethnic variety, consisted of Arabs, Berbers, Muladís, Mozarabic, Jews, Slavs and Hispanicgoths.

When sharing out the land the Muslims occupied the most fertile lands of the valley of the Guadalquivir and Ebro to Arabs, and the plateau area and north of the peninsula to the Berbers, who worked as shepherds, while the Arabs occupied positions of power. These social and economic differences in time would bring problems. The Berbers rebelled in 741, who abandoned the North to escape to the South. This fact made the resistance easier for Christian groups who were in the north, to recover land, making a larger border in dispute with Muslims.

In areas dominated by Muslims, they were more leaning to strengthen the cities, rather than the rural settlement, typical of the Visigothic period, and northern Spain. As years passed there will be population movements, from the villages to the cities. It was due to the arrival of new Berbers, a release of many Slavs, and to the same Mozarabic population, that felt attraction to the Arab culture and its customs.

This new appreciation for the cities meant that they had to extend the old cities and build new ones. This fact also contributed to the growth of a strong economy, thanks to the monopoly that the Arabs had with gold and the agricultural technical improvements. This brought a major production that would be sold in the market together with crafts, and an increase in the services sector.

With the Umayyad monarchy rural life still existed, but there was also a recuperation in the industry and trade, and the need to supply the needs of urban life. All this increased consumption. It caused the breakdown of self-sufficiency economy Visigoth, which changed to an economy directed for cities. All this marked a sharp contrast between the Christian world (which kept on with a rural economy) and the Muslim world, that lived an urban and comercial renaissance.
This flowering of cities would enable minted coins, gold dinars and silver dirhemes in addition to the bronze feluses.

It also appeared textile industry skilled, dedicated to cater the needs of citizens dress, and a specialized luxury fabrics which were concentrated in certain cities

We can differentiate two types of trading, one inland with a relationship city-countryside where trade was made in eventual or permanent markets which were near the mosque, and the international trade, that arose in the 9th century, thanks to the business between the mainland and the rest of the Muslim world. But they would also have contact with the rest of the Muslim world to obtain luxury items.
The cities were divided into districts, consisting of people with the same religion or ethnic group, these areas were really small cities within the same city. In the middle of the city there was the mosque, the main trade and “alcaicería”. The houses were a refuge, their lives revolved around patios, the windows overlooking to outside had lattice, in order to keep their privacy and because of fear of strangers.

Political Problems

During the first three centuries, the Muslim government was characterized by its continued tensions with the northern Christian kingdoms, as well as internal problems of Muslim government. These internal rivalries weakened their own power. Then Christians took advantage of the situation so as to avoid paying their taxes. This would force the rulers of the Umayyad to make a major effort to establish a unified state.

In 756, Abd al-Rahman I, an Umayyad prince who fled for his life from Damascus, was proclaimed emir of al-Andalus, creating an independent Muslim state politically and militarily, but not religious. The possession of this title gave him absolute power. It would be a centrally manage state. Seven Emirs followed him and this was a period culturally rich.

But this new state will found with opposition, including the Shiites, that supported the bereberes, and the Spanish Muladís. This problem shows us a lack of a doctrinal uniformity, which meant a danger to the new regime. Then the emir would try to impose a single official doctrine. He had problems with the Hispanic population, with the Francs with their continuous incursions into his territory, and with its own internal problems too.

To solve it he used the power of the force that would bring a period of relative peace with Abd-al-Rahman II, thanks to economic development and trade. But he couldn’t get political unity. He would remain in power through military force.

Stage of the Caliphate of Córdoba

The apparent peace and prosperity that until then seemed to show the previous government, disappeared due to the imposition by the force of privilege on behalf of the Arab minority, resulting in a strong social and economic difference to the Muslim Hispanicgoth majority. The impossibility of reconciling the interests of a centralized state with the interests of an aristocratic minority Arabic, and finally the economic crisis caused by pestilence and famine brought up many problems which lasted 60 years.

The problems with the Spanish Muslims began at the border, through contact with the Visigothic tradition and their strong desire of independence, the Amir had it difficult to control these outbreaks of insurrection.
This period was also characterized by economic recovery, social diversity, thanks to an emergence of a middle class, and strengthening the army, all of this contributed to dominate the political power of al-Andalus

The Mosque of Cordoba

This strength allowed the Abd al-Rahman III the borders to extend his control on the borders not only in the peninsula but also in Africa. But he had to face a new enemy, the Fatimid Qayrawan, who claimed his power because they were direct descendants of Muhammad, so only them had divine support. To this new threat he needed a new strategy Abd-al-RahmanIII himself proclaimed caliph in 929. In this way his reign would be completely independent, because he became the supreme leader allowing Abd al-Rahman III to extend his control over political, military and religious. So between 930 and 980, the Caliphate of Cordoba reached the height of his power and prestige.

To strengthen his caliphate, Abd al-Rahman III increased its army strengthened by new troops which formed a mixed group that included Slavs, to cope with the progress of the Northern Christians who increasingly would wider their border. As a result he sought a political strategy to control the military power and eliminate Christians from the border of the Duero river. In this work we can highlite an important ruler, Mansur, who passed to be an administrator to a dictator (the Caliph during this time was a figurehead, and the power was in the hands of Al-Mansur). This strength would be based on a military power. Thanks to his victories he could have the control. These victories also bring some economic benefits, due to the plundering of the Christians. However, the lack of unity among the soldiers, the heavy burden of maintaining the army, the inequalities, by the strength of local authorities, kept threatening centralizing policy.

Mansur was able to maintain power until his death, and even his son Abd-al Makil retained it until 1008. But in 1031, the Caliphate fell, and his power was fragmented resulting in the appearance of different Taifa kingdoms.
The year 1008 will mark the end of the Islamic politics. During the years 1009 to 1090 it was the first period of the Taifa kingdoms. There were thirty Taifas, and there are three major groups, the Berbers, Slavs, dominated by the former army of Mansur and al-Andalus, which includes all Arab Muslims and Hispanics, this group would be the most powerful. All these different kingdoms would try to preserve their power and independence, leading to clashes over again in a continuing civil war. As a result they would lose power gradually. To sustain this fragile situation, they created an army of mercenaries, and at the same time they built fortresses with the idea of ensuring some protection. Because of all this instability, the Muslims were forced to enter into a pariah regime, which means that they had to buy the peace to Christians paying expensive charges.

But the rapid advance of the Reconquest, which in 1085 achieved the recovery of Toledo, made them ask help to the Almoravids.
Between 1090 and 1145 the period of domination Almoravids began, whose state of power was in Morocco. This condition was characterized by literally observation of the Koranic text, which in turn would return to the idea of expansionism. Although both were successful at the junction of the Taifa kingdoms and the conquest of some Christian territories, it wasn’t enough to maintain their power. And some problems of the past aroused, because of popular discontent and opposition, so there were new uprisings. So between 1144 and 1145 appeared the second Taifa.
With the advance of Christians a new dynasty arose in the Maghrib, the Almohad.

The domination of the Almohad meant greater strength and power of the Berbers. Its rise was due to dissatisfaction with the Almoravids, who became very extreme. However, the lack of popular support, will make it very difficult for Almohad to rule, who had problems in defending the territories that were in Christians power. This weakness will be seen mainly in the victory of Las Navas de Tolosa by Christians in 1212, this was the beginning of the end of their domain, and thus the beginning the third Taifa.

These third taifa lasted only for a short period due to the conquests of Fernando III of Castile and Jaume I of Aragon. Eventually they reduced the Islamic territory to the kingdom of Granada in 1238. This kingdom kept on existing due to internal problems in Castile, and the diplomacy of the founder of the Kingdom of Granada al-Nasr Ibn Alhmar, until the expulsion of the Moors in 1492 by the the Catholic Kings.

Alhambra in Granada, the last residence of the Muslim kings in al-Andalus

Scientific and Cultural Heritage

The Muslim world was a step forward in literature, art, and even science, through the establishment of private schools, the learning of reading and writing, and the creation of libraries.

In particular this cultural development was held from 8th century with Abd al-Rahman II, and kept in different Taifa kingdoms.

Statue of Maimónides in Cordoba, an al-Andalus jewish, rabbi, physician and philosopher.

This enlightment is conducted through Arabic, although the population of al-Andalus used mostly Romance languages (in fact we can find in the 10th century lyrical compositions), Arabic is the language of culture. The fact that many people were converted to Islam, ( not by imposition, they searched economic benefits, because to accept Islam meant to be equal and not to have to pay tax), undoubtedly favoured the new state, which would now have to seek unity and the political and ideological consensus. To do so they would use private schools, whose main subject would be learning the Koran and the principles of Islam. For this, the new members of Islam don’t have only to know the theory, but also show that they were walking in the path or sunna of Muhammad.

That is why the Islamic jurists-theologians created schools that were guarding the purity of orthodox religion, and cultural creations of their own.

Education and knowledge had an important place in the Muslim kingdom, in fact the emirs and caliphs themselves contributed to the promotion of education, making education accessible to everyone. For example they ordered to translate the works of ancient Greek philosophers, and created important libraries, mosques and madrassas where to teach science as well as religion or jurisprudence.
It will be especially during the reign of Abd al-Rahman II, when the Arabic poetry was fully developed. They found inspiration from oriental literature. But in the 10th Century a new kind of folk poetry would emerge, the muwassaha and zéjel, written in vernacular language, and with a variety of rhymes. The popularity of these compositions shows us a mixed and bilingual society.

If we talk about prose, we can say that it had a prominent place in their philosophical thought.

The most influential philosopher was Averroes. Also the historical, geographic work would have a great importance.

We cannot forget the contribution that Islam made to science, which caused a revolution in the knowledge. These scholars were mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, botanists, agronomists, etc. The most prosperous science would be mathematics and astronomy. We owe to Muslims the Arabic numbering system and trigonometry.
We have several prominent scientists as Ibn Taimiya, specializes in astronomy and medicine. Averroes and the brothers Harami, who practiced medicine in the reign of al-Hakam II, and the agronomist Ibn a-Awan, who wrote a treatise on agriculture. All these men of science influenced Europe at their time and even after. Until the seventeenth century, they were the models of other important men in science like Miguel Servet, Copernicus and Galileo


In the architectural styles, we must emphasize the great influence of other cultures as Persian, Chinese or Visigoth in Islamic art, but certainly the decorative motifs and structures have their own Muslim origin. Proof of this is the rather ornate decoration of floral and geometric figures. In this art we won’t find representations of human figures or animals because of religious reasons. The great use of this decoration camouflages the structures. Another architectural feature is the stalactite, which will consist of alveoli overlayed.

The most emblematic buildings of the Muslim culture were the mosques, religious places. They possessed a minaret from which they were called to pray, and a courtyard where the ablution fountain is. The mosques are always oriented to Mecca. We also find mausoleums where kings were buried.

Other buildings of note are the madrassas, buildings and school.
In cities we find the fortresses, which were fortifications built to defend the cities. And talking about residential architecture we can’t forget the Alhambra, named for its reddish appearance. This beautiful palace, built around the 9th century in Granada, didn’t have its brilliance up to the 13th Century with the reign of Mohamed Ben-al-Hamar. On the other hand we have the palace of Madinat al-Zahra, which is about 8 km from Cordoba. Built by order of Abd al-Rahman III to demonstrate its political superiority and to compete with other caliphs.

Muslims stood out for his work with gold, creating beautiful pieces, as well as fabrics in silk or beautiful bindings of books.



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